Blog 8 min read 01 November 2021

How to Create Action out of Language: Ideas From COP26

Our regular Impact Insights series takes an informal look at four people in the public eye, and what business leaders can learn from the way they communicate.


Can words save the world?

The search for a phrase to make an audience act

  • Those taking the stage at COP26 in Glasgow are facing a challenge many leaders will recognise. How do you speak in a way that makes the people in front of you do more than just listen – and actually do something? Here are three approaches:
  • Sir David Attenborough’s strategy was to make heroes out of his audience. He created a heroic narrative and placed delegates at the centre of it. “In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could and should witness a wonderful recovery. That desperate hope is why the world is looking to you. And why you are here.”
  • The UN Secretary General sought to use a metaphor to change perceptions of fossil fuels, creating a sinister connection. “Enough of burning and mining and drilling our way deeper. We are digging our own graves,” said Antonio Guterres.
  • One of the most memorable speeches was from 15-year-old Earthshot Prize finalist Vinisha Umashankar. By the third day of the conference, audiences had heard a lot of speeches. Vinisha chose to upend audience expectations: “I am not here to speak about the future. I am the future.”

The lesson for leaders: Moving an audience to action demands more than information. Choose a strategy to elicit an emotional response.

Embracing the mid-sentence pause

The single greatest way to hold a room

  • Is this the most powerful […pause…] signal of confidence? The FT’s Janan Ganesh thinks so. “Nothing – not eye-contact, not spread arms – conveys confidence like a mid-sentence pause”.
  • On his side is Barack Obama, routinely lauded as the greatest orator of his generation, and a serial user of the mid-sentence pause.
  • Take a look at his address to the UN General Assembly in 2014. He doesn’t just pause at the end of lines, his entire address is peppered with mid-sentence pauses.
  • His predecessor in the UK Tony Blair used the same trick (on show throughout the BBC’s ‘Blair and Brown’) and you can see how in a room, not racing to fill a silence with an ‘um’ or an ‘ah’ tends to project confidence.

The lesson for leaders: Allow a moment of silence to show you’re in command of your ideas.

Confessions of 100 failed investor pitches

How heart always trumps head

  • Melanie Perkins created one of the world’s most valuable startups. Her design platform Canva just received $200 million investment and is valued at $40bn. But initially she was rejected by more than 100 investors.
  • What was going wrong? Perkins explains that spent those 100 pitches using slides to tell investors about the technical detail of her solution
  • The revelation came when she realized she needed to articulate an emotionally resonant problem that her platform solved.
  • Perkins refined the pitch – using storytelling to share her own experiences of struggling with clunky design programs – before introducing her solution to investors. This turned out to be the $40bn moment for her company.

The lesson for leaders: Every argument needs an inspiration. Even a shrewd details-focused investor needs to know why you care.

Can you laugh at yourself?

Elon Musk’s supercharged awkwardness

  • Elon Musk is an uncomfortable watch. As he admits, he talks too fast and doesn’t have a lot of ‘intonational variation’.
  • But watch his monologue as the host of Saturday Night Live. He encourages the audience to laugh at him, and his unconventional delivery style. So they do.
  • People who are self-deprecating in a public speaking context are perceived as being secure. Research shows they build trust.
  • A team of comedy writers probably helps too.

The lesson for leaders: When the context is right, laugh at yourself.